Pondering the Phenomenological Reduction

Gayle Salamon’s article “Boys of the Lex: Transgender and Social Construction” made quite a few extremely compelling points.  Among them are some great defenses of social constructionism, some astute theorizing about embodiment, and a fascinating summary of Husserl’s practice of “phenomenological reduction.”  I’d like to just mention a few things that interested me pertaining to the first two subjects, and then I’d like to spend the bulk of my post pondering this practice of Husserl’s. 

            In this chapter of her book Assuming the Body, Salamon deftly rebukes the critiques advanced by some Trans Studies scholars against the theories of social construction, which have historically been championed by scholars of Queer Theory.  Answering the general critique that social constructionist conceptions of gender do not resonate with the reality of gender as it is lived, embodied and experienced, Salamon writes: “What we feel about our bodies is just as ‘constructed’ as what we think about them… What social construction offers is a way to understand how that felt sense arises, in all its historical and cultural variations, with all its urgency and immediacy,” (77).  What we think and feel about our bodies and our genders is completely real, but this realness does not preclude the social construction of these thoughts and feelings. 

            Considering the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Salamon writes, “The phenomenological body presents itself as simply there, as unproblematically available to me.  Yet this simple givenness is a fiction… Anything I might do with my body… acquires legibility only in the context of all my body’s previous actions,” (78).  She considers how, although people may experience of their bodies as simply material and solely located in the present, even this sense obscures the reality that bodies have histories of actions, states, etc which inform the meaning of present actions, states, etc. 

            In Salamon’s summary, Husserl makes a

“call to establish certainty about existence.  This certainty can be achieved through what he termed the phenomenological reduction or epoche, an attitude toward the world that consists of suspending judgments about it, a bracketing off of what we know to determine how that knowledge comes about and to guarantee a correspondence between our knowledge of objects and those objects themselves,” (89).

 

Acknowledging that different individuals’ experiences or perceptions of objects are necessarily varied, and that one’s own perception and experience of the world cannot be assumed to be shared by others, Salamon conceptualizes reality (reality of objects, reality of gender, reality of life and the world): “A real object is a ‘complex of all its possible appearances,’ containing within it the possibility of its own being for and from the perspective of any individual person. In this sense, what constitutes something as real is… a horizon of possibility, an openness to all the different experiences that it represents to any given person,” (91).  Interestingly, because of the impossibility of objectivity- or of knowledge which is not rooted to some specific perspective- “reality” must be understood as a composite of diverse experiences and perceptions. 

            “Transgender” is often understood to function as the “umbrella-like” categorical title which encompasses individuals manifesting various configurations of non-normative sex/gender/sexuality matchings.  These configurations are fundamentally diverse, and a quick look at a typical version of the “transgender umbrella” at http://www.pflagphoenix.org/images/umbrella_transgender.jpg reveals the intense multiplicity attending the engagement of this term.  Additionally, as is argued throughout Salamon’s piece regarding the Boys of the Lex calendar, even when only manifestations within a single “sub-genre” of transgender identity are considered, variety of expression and diversity of ascribed meaning abound.  Thus, utilizing the phenomenological reductionist version of reality, the sub-category “butch lesbian” and the category “transgender” derive their realness from the “horizon of possibilities” which exists for their enactment and embodiment by, and perceived meaning for, various individuals. 

 

By Roz Rini

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